Meeting the Moment with Innovative Online Leader Preparation

Learn how one online-by-design principal preparation program is training transformational school leaders. In partnership with New Leaders, this program offers a unique blueprint for remote professional learning options.
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How do we prepare educators to be effective equity-focused leaders in an era of Zoom meetings, virtual town halls, and online planning sessions? In this unprecedented time, Austin Peay State University (APSU) inTennessee is leading the way. In late May, 67 exemplary teachers from across the state began a new online training program to become transformational school leaders—leaders who are not afraid todo things differently, especially now.

“I want to see leaders who can empower, motivate…persevere,” explains Dr. Laura Barnett, a former school leader of 18 years and coordinator of the inaugural APSU Aspiring Assistant Principal Network. Selected from urban and rural Tennessee school districts of every size, all 67 teachers will engage in job-embedded learning, coaching, and coursework to earn administrator credentials. The year-long program was designed with support from New Leaders as part of an initiative to re-envision leader preparation across the country.

As system and school leaders face an acute need for online and blended professional learning options in the coming year, APSU’s online-by-design program offers a unique blueprint. Spurred by investment from the state of Tennessee, the paradigm shift for APSU has been twofold: First, an emphasis on effective leadership practices and ongoing opportunities to apply those practices in school settings, virtual or otherwise. Second, the need to view their success through the impact graduates have beyond the program – and not just the completion of the program itself which is how most university-based programs measure their success.

“Our College of Education is judged by the work that our graduates do,” explains Dean Prentice Chandler. “That’s the signature hallmark of whether or not we’re doing a good job.”

Listen as Dean Chandler and Dr. Barnett describe what is different about their online approach and how the learning is rooted in both theory and the daily demands of school leadership roles.

The national outcry for racial justice and the need for leaders to address systemic racism has only fueled the desire for leaders to meet the moment and grow professionally. The APSU model is a new solution – and an opportunity to move forward differently. The approach includes four central design elements:  

Self-Paced: Online content allows adult learners to excel in their current roles while they learn new skills and practices.

Interactive: Virtual classes and coaching sessions provide opportunities for adult learners to interact with experienced school leaders.

Job-Embedded: Assignments are specific to the school context and provide adult learners with ongoing opportunities to practice newly acquired leadership skills.

Learner-driven: A team of experienced professionals – mentor principal, faculty, coaches – support and engage adult learners in self-reflection and problem-solving.

By the end of the year-long program, Dr. Barnett expects graduates to be “problem solvers who know how to create new solutions and not just look for the same old answers.” They need to have a clear vision and drive impact by using effective leadership practices to move students toward independence and success. To advance that goal, APSU also recruited additional faculty and coaches (including two New Leaders alumni) who have experience as successful school leaders.

“We don’t pretend to know the best ways to do everything,” notes Dean Chandler. “There are some people who do, who can help us. It would be foolish not to take advantage of that.”

This time next spring the first cohort will graduate. The partnership between New Leaders and APSU is forging a new pathway for 67 future leaders to advance excellence and equity across the state of Tennessee. In time, this partnership will form the foundation for new partnerships with more institutions of higher education in states across the country.

The partnership between APSU and New Leaders is part of an initiative by New Leaders to scale our impact across the country. It is supported by an investment from The Studio @ Blue Meridian. The Studio @ Blue Meridian empowers social sector leaders by providing flexible resources that help fill strategic gaps and accelerate an organization’s readiness for significantly scaling its reach, impact, and influence.

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Prentice Chandler

Prentice Chandler

Dr. Prentice Chandler is the Dean of the Eriksson College of Education at Austin Peay State University. Dr. Chandler previously served as the Associate Director of Teacher Education and Leadership at the University of Cincinnati. In 2017, he was awarded the Notable Leader in Teacher Education Award from the Alabama Association of Teacher Educators. In 2019, he became a fellow for Deans for Impact, a national nonprofit that strives to better prepare teachers for 21st century classrooms.

Prentice Chandler

Laura Barnett

Dr. Laura Barnett is an assistant professor in the Educational Specialties department of the College of Education at Austin Peay State University. She previously served 28 years in Clarksville-Montgomery County School System with 18 of those years as an administrator in three schools. Dr. Barnett is currently the Graduate Coordinator for the AAPN Master’s degree in Educational Leadership and a teacher in that program.

Prentice Chandler

Prentice Chandler

Prentice Chandler


From New Leaders, this is our Leadership Changes Everything series. We’re elevating leaders' voices from across the country. I’m really pleased to be talking today with Dean Prentice Chandler and Dr. Laura Barnett, faculty at Austin Peay State University.

You won a state grant that’s allowing you to provide a free administrator preparation program and master’s degree in Educational Administration to more than 60 educators in Tennessee in this coming year. And you partnered with us to help you design the program. From your perspective, how is the experience of these educators, these 60 people, going to be different from other programs in Tennessee?

Dr. Barnett:

Something that’s special about this program is that the content is not just the theory of leadership. It really is the practices. It’s the day-to-day work. We are giving our students job-embedded assignments. We’re asking them to work with a mentor principal. They’re doing problems of practice. They have some release time during the day, so that they can have these experiences that look more like what an administrator learned during their first year with their feet on the ground. We have coaches for small groups of students to meet with monthly that are sitting, practicing principals in Tennessee, who can give them the wisdom of their experience. They have professors in the program who’ve had experience in schools. It just looks completely different than anything we’ve offered before. I would also say that with the unexpected COVID situation, it being completely online allows us to be faithful to this program even if some things change in our environment.

Dr. Chandler:

In the College, we have attempted to make a paradigm shift in how we prepare teachers and how we prepare leaders. Historically, it was framed as colleges of ed train teachers, and then we’d send them off into the workforce, and then we wouldn’t have anything to do with them for the rest of their time as teachers. The shift is looking at the development of teachers and leaders as a partnership between a local school district and a College of Education.

I say this in meetings all the time: our College of Education is judged by the work that our graduates do. That’s the signature hallmark of whether or not you’re doing a good job. If our teachers are doing a good job in the classrooms, and our leaders are doing a good job leading schools and leading districts, that’s just about the best stamp of approval you can get.

One of the things that we try to do when we work in partnership with universities is two things at once: one, understand and respect the strengths and assets that you all as an institution bring to the work; and two, push you into maybe uncomfortable places around how to change and move so you can get better results on behalf of the participants and the kids they serve. I’m curious if there are any areas in which you felt particularly pushed in your thinking in terms of working with us.

Dr. Barnett:

I have recently been a public-school principal in Tennessee for 18 years. When I think about who I would like to see come out of our program and be ready to walk into a school, I’m thinking about people who are student-centered, who are focused on the work, who are collaborative at solving problems and accomplishing end goals, who have a commitment to high expectations, who understand some of the soft skills as well that go along with being an administrator.

I have really strong and passionate feelings about what administrators need to be doing in their buildings to take care of their school and their community. But I don’t always have the article, or the research, or the concept to go with it to teach that skill to someone else. I think that has been a huge area of learning for me. I’m going from being a practitioner to being an educator and a developer of a program – and that is where New Leaders has really been the backbone of this for me.

Dr. Chandler:

When we have conversations with school districts, when we have conversations with the state, when we have conversations with people like New Leaders – the conclusion you come away with is that we all want the same thing. So, if we want the same things, then why not work together to get to those ends? We will work with anybody that I think can help us do a better job. New Leaders obviously fits that mold. We are open to the idea that we don’t pretend to know the best ways to do everything. There are some people who do, who can help us. It would be foolish to not take advantage of that.

Dr. Barnett:

It has been a really exciting adventure to partner with people who have the caliber of work ethic and integrity and expertise that New Leaders has provided to us. I could never have put together the kind of program we’re going to be able to deliver

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